If science fiction teaches us only one thing, it's that even the most shit-stained, blood shod cesspits of this planet barely compare to the dark, terrifying unknowns of outer space. Frankly, it's something Alter Echo could do with looking into, because despite leaving the player virtually alone on a planet where the very environment is a living, breathing, snarling entity intent on his destruction, it's about as frightening as a bouncy castle.
In the future, we're told, the world is full of 'shapers', people who can mould a substance called 'plast' to suit their every need. Not content with that, the government of the day helps the world's most talented shaper fake his own death and escape to a faraway world to shred plastid tissue in pursuit of a more powerful substance.
In due course, this shaper by the name of Paavo becomes rather enamoured with his groundbreaking research and goes a bit nutty, rejecting his human form to become part of the wobbly next-generation goop he's been developing. Unfortunately for him, his creation, echoplast, becomes so unstable that it grows into a sentient, emotional being keen on thwarting his masochistic metamorphosis. At which point an earthly envoy of shapers arrives to check on his progress.
Obviously Paavo isn't too thrilled about this, and shoots down their vessel. Using its considerable influence, the despairing, benevolent echoplast plucks player-character Nevin out of a fatal freefall and wraps him in an adrenaline-pumping, shapeshifting accelerator of a biosuit. And so the adventure begins.
Although initially a slasher, with basic three-stroke attacks on square and triangle, and an uppercut move on circle, Alter Echo quickly evolves into something different as Nevin is gifted with the ability to switch between normal, 'gun' and 'stealth' forms using L1 and R1. Gun form morphs him into a big, slow, mech-sized brute with a hand cannon and grenade attack, allowing him to target projectile-firing plastid enemies as they spawn out of nowhere. Stealth mode is more interesting though, morphing Nevin into a four-legged, alien-like creature that can pounce on enemies, evade detection with a rechargeable invisibility toggle (R2), gather distant power-ups and enemies with its tongue, and even clamber up walls and across the ceiling on areas with specific textures.
Although Nevin loses the ability to shapeshift into gun and stealth forms briefly after about an hour, he quickly regains both forms, and coupled with an array of slash attacks that grows thanks to upgrade stations throughout the game, the combat remains refreshing, varied, rewarding and fun - particularly with the addition of "time dilation".
One of the smartest aspects of Nevin's biosuit, we're told, is that it allows him to suspend time to shape his attacks. But instead of throwing in a copy-and-paste Bullet Time mode, the developer has instead crafted a time-based 2D puzzle system to execute this advanced attack. By collecting orange power-ups dropped by enemies and located in Alter Echo's mushroom-shaped version of crates, Nevin can charge up his time dilation bar, and when half or more full, this allows him to potentially annihilate any pressing adversaries without the hassle of tricky combo attacks. By pressing R3, Nevin is taken to a 2D grid with enemy squares, blocked squares and neutral squares, and using the face buttons as a sort of second D-pad, the player has to manoeuvre around the grid touching each enemy, but only moving when a repeating line crosses a particular area on a meter at the foot of the screen. Each enemy Nevin touches without missing the sweet spot on the meter, running out of space or going back himself is then struck down in style by vicious slash attacks.
Dispatching enemies like this is actually remarkably enjoyable, but the basic combat isn't too bad either. It's combo-based, and particularly heavy-hitting combos are rewarded with lots of 'plasm', which the player can then spend on new moves or armour/health at upgrade stations. But although you could spend hours and hours learning and unlocking all the moves (and it'll probably take a couple of plays through to gather them all), there isn't a great deal of variety in the enemies, and few of them really make you think all that much - even the bosses. Although they do adapt if you keep pounding away with the same move again and again, a little variation is all it takes to keep going, and having to kill respawning enemies until the 'spawn node's shields run down gets a little tiring after a while.
Despite a promising setup then, Alter Echo never really blossoms into anything particularly special. The premise is an interesting one, but the design teams don't seem to have enough imagination to do it justice. Graphically the game is curvy, blue and alien, but it's very synthetic and harmless-looking, with environments more akin to bright fluffy areas in The Abyss than Alien's dark, brooding hellholes. Animation is basic too, detail levels are pretty low, even for a PS2 game, and despite plastid warriors regularly spawning out of nowhere, apparently nobody thought to illustrate the living, breathing world birthing them out of the environment with a bit of unsettling, wall-bursting action.
Likewise, the general design and pacing of the game stops you ever really getting into Nevin's adventure. Levels are short and, despite exercising as many of Nevin's abilities as possible, rarely evolve beyond basic hackandslash, find the switch, destroy the node or dodge the laser puzzles. And while most of the game is spent fighting, whether via combo combat, time dilation or the occasional static gun emplacement, the identikit enemies and bosses never feel like anything more than half-hearted obstacles, and are rarely all that difficult to overcome. Still, with save points between each of the pint-sized levels, dying is never much of an issue anyway.
On the whole we do like Alter Echo, but the storyline demands something a lot more sinister and a lot less smart-arsed. Nevin's voice acting, for example, is about as fitting (and palatable) as a mouldy biscuit at a wedding cake exhibition. Together with the colourful, Saturday morning cartoon visuals, linear progression, our hero's apparent lack of interest in exploration and a fairly disobedient camera, we weren't all that bothered when it was all over after a relatively meagre six hours of morphing and mashing.
While it is refreshing to see a licence and franchise-obsessed publisher like THQ launching original brands and backing a risky concept like Alter Echo, this is unlikely to encourage it to green light the next one. As it is, it's a good game that you wouldn't mind unwrapping on Christmas morn, but it lacks the imagination that the design documents must have been crying out for, and ultimately feels too much like psychedelic paintball in a foam-padded adventure playground.